Celebrating Pride at Automattic: “In a World That Wants You to Apologize or Minimize Who You Are, Don’t.”

painting of a rainbow

This month, we’re exploring identity, diversity and inclusion in tech and the workplace, and what it means to celebrate Pride Month. Kicking off our series is an interview with Basil Gowins of the Human League, our human resources team at Automattic. Happy Pride Month!

How do you identify?

I identify as queer.

My gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality has tended to ebb and flow throughout my life. I like the term queer because it encompasses how I identify regardless of how I may be feeling on a given day.

I am particularly attached to the term queer as a repurposing of a word that was once used to isolate and disempower people — it was used to call people out as problematically different and other. From my perspective, there is no normal and no other; instead, we are all individual and unique. Identifying as queer allows me to take pride in my own individuality.

The choice of how someone identifies should remain in the hands of that individual. If you are not sure how new people you meet identify, ask them.

Language changes over time, and how we use language shapes our values and thinking. In a culture that is aggressively governed by heteronormative values and where it can still be dangerous and lonely to be LGBTQIA+ — such as the United States, where I live — defining myself as queer is also my small act of defiance. It is a reminder of the consistent fight for acceptance, inclusion, and justice that so many people face, and our inherent value and validity as humans.

I recognize that not all LBGTQIA+ people identify with the reappropriated use of queer due to its history of being used as a slur. I think the concerns raised about the word’s reappropriation are valid and worth ongoing conversation. I bring this up because I think it’s an important reminder that while many people do identify as queer, identifying any LGBTQIA+ individual you meet as queer could potentially be hurtful and insulting instead of supportive. The choice of how someone identifies should remain in the hands of that individual. If you are not sure how new people you meet identify, ask them.

As an HR Operations Magician at Automattic, how have your life experiences — and this exploration of gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality —  informed the work you do?

Like many people who identify as queer, I have worked at previous companies with colleagues and supervisors that were generally unwelcoming toward LGBTQIA+ folks. Some examples of behaviors I experienced were the outright objection to womxn and queer events, refusal to acknowledge an individual’s pronouns, and discriminatory comments about transgender folks.

My past experiences of being in unwelcoming work environments led me to ask the question, “Why are so many work environments so terrible towards LGBTQIA+ folks, and how can I make it even slightly better?” For several years I researched diversity and inclusion. I also began listening to several HR and job culture podcasts, because I felt that human resources and people operations departments were at the heart of driving policy and culture. I applied to Automattic because of their impressive commitment to diversity and inclusion.

As part of my daily work at Automattic, I support onboarding for new hires and candidates who are entering our trial process. I also work with my colleagues to improve the quality of the work experience for everyone.

It is not about just making the easiest decision. It is about making the most caring decision possible.

My work involves hundreds of small and unique interactions per week. Many of these interactions are with folks who are trying to decide if Automattic is a place where they can contribute their talents and feel welcomed. I consider it my job to act with diversity and inclusion at the forefront of my mind, and to always be learning in accordance with our company creed.

I also try to leverage my experiences in shared team discussions whenever possible, to help inform best practices. It is not about just making the easiest decision. It is about making the most caring decision possible.

I will be honest that even working somewhere like Automattic, volunteering for this interview is still a very vulnerable thing for me to do. But, there was a time when I could not volunteer for such an interview even if I wanted to. I feel grateful for the community at Automattic in welcoming me to be myself, and I try to pay it forward in as many small ways that I can. If I help someone feel 1% safer to be themselves each day, then it is a good day.

What’s it like interacting with and supporting people in a mostly text-based environment, especially new hires and trials who may be new to the distributed work model?

Working in a completely distributed environment is incredibly rewarding, but it does require significant changes to the way people work. Moving to an environment where communication is primarily text-based can be challenging for those who are used to real time, face-to-face conversations in an office.

When we onboard a new hire, we provide them resources that explain our tools and channels of communication. We also pair new hires with a mentor — an experienced colleague — who provides guidance and helps in acclimating them to a distributed environment. Many mentors hold Zoom calls with their mentees, and that helps provide some valuable face-to-face connections in the beginning.

Finding the right tone in written communication can also be challenging. When considering my tone, I strive to be welcoming and clear. I express empathy by acknowledging that I understand how folks are feeling. I avoid using figures of speech, and instead focus on clear, specific language. If I am referencing something, I link to it. I try to remember that people can’t see me, and that I can’t rely on facial expressions or body language. If I am excited about something, I say so! While I don’t recommend going overboard, the occasional emoji or GIF can also add warmth and personality. 😎

What challenges do you face when communicating about sensitive topics? How do you build trust and show support in a remote environment?

I consider myself far from an expert in navigating sensitive HR topics in a distributed working environment. This is an area where I am actively learning. I find myself fortunate to work with such amazing team members who excel at this.

I think the most important thing to remember when navigating a difficult conversation in writing is that there is a person on the other side of the screen.

When contributing to internal discussions that may be polarizing or sensitive in nature, I try to focus on what I want to learn from the conversation. I find it helpful to draft my initial thoughts in a separate window. I listen and ask questions first before fully forming my response. I try to share my thoughts in a way that demonstrates I am curious and open to hearing ideas. Being curious and open instead of defensive and combative goes a long way in building trust.

I think the most important thing to remember when navigating a difficult conversation in writing is that there is a person on the other side of the screen. Sometimes you may need to disagree and commit to a decision, and it is important that everyone is respected on the path to that decision. Everyone has a unique perspective, and that diversity is a strength. There is always an opportunity to learn from others.

Is there a specific issue that you’re passionate about or around which you’d like to raise awareness?

As a longtime bicycle safety, public transit, and sustainability advocate, I am currently a bit of a crispy critter — a phrase used by a friend of mine who used to be in the Peace Corps to describe someone who is burnt out from sustained activism work. I’ve recently taken a step back from activism to work on my own mental health and well-being. While I can’t speak in detail about the most up-to-date efforts in areas I am passionate about, I can share a little about an issue that I believe is important and needs further activism.

Unfortunately, conversion “therapy” (I use quotes because it is not real therapy) is something still practiced in an attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Many of the practices include physical and emotional abuse. Children and teens are incredibly vulnerable, as generally their parents force them to participate. This “therapy” increases the risk of depression, suicide, and homelessness. These issues are each a crisis on their own in LGBTQIA+ teen communities with a whole host of preventable causes, and I think conversion “therapy” is one of the most abominable culprits. I believe every person has the right to grow up in a caring, supportive, and affirming environment. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), HRC (Human Rights Campaign), and many other organizations work on these issues.

What does celebrating Pride Month mean to you or look like for you?

For me, Pride Month is about being proud to be uniquely you, and paying it forward by unabashedly sharing that uniqueness with those around you. When you can show up powerfully as yourself, it empowers other people to be themselves, too. I think we need so much more of that in the world. In a world that wants you to apologize or minimize who you are, don’t. Be proud. Be yourself.

Interested in the work that Basil does? Apply to be a Human (Resources) Wrangler on our team. You can also learn about WordPress.com’s diversity efforts through our partnership with Out in Tech, which connects LGBTQ+ activists to leaders in tech.